Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Life of Wicked Idleness

Before we turn to Eliza's next adventure, let's pause to examine the rest of her family--which will allow me to unburden myself of some information I've come across only in the last week or so.

As I mentioned, Eliza--after a disastrous early marriage that effectively left her the single parent of an infant daughter--lived with her father, Dr. John Crawford, in Baltimore. What I've only just discovered is that she also had a brother, named Thomas.

The small family--father, son, and daughter--had arrived in Baltimore in 1796 at the invitation of Crawford's brother-in-law, a prominent Baltimore merchant named John O'Donnell. (Crawford's wife--that is, Eliza's mother--had died on a voyage from Barbados to England in 1782, when Eliza was only about two years old.) Before that, Crawford had left his native Ireland to study medicine in Holland and then practiced medicine in both the East and West Indies, where he'd had the opportunity to study tropical diseases--and, unfortunately, to contract them. In both 1782 and then again in 1794, ill health forced him to return from the West Indies to Britain to recuperate. After the second trip home he'd been planning to head back to Demerara--once a Dutch colony, now a British colony--when the invitation came from O'Donnell in Baltimore. Crawford accepted the invitation in hopes that "it might prove advantageous to his children." Not to mention that, despite annual yellow fever outbreaks, Baltimore's climate was pretty healthy compared to the West Indies.

Crawford was apparently in straitened financial circumstances when he arrived in Baltimore--O'Donnell put the family up in "an excellent well furnished house," Crawford wrote to a friend, "and supplied me with money as long as I would receive it." Which, he said, was only "until my earnings were in the barest manner sufficient to afford subsistence and cloathing for my Son and daughter and myself." Lack of money appears to have been a chronic condition for Crawford. “Oh! how grievous it is to reflect upon the deranged state in which my affairs have been in almost my whole life," he laments to his friend. But he had hopes that his luck was about to change. Alas for him, he wasn't entirely right about that.

Crawford appears to have pinned his hopes partly on his son, Thomas. In 1799 he spent a portion of his still scarce money to send Thomas off to study medicine in London. There are hints, however, that Crawford has some doubts about Thomas's potential. On the one hand, he tells his friend, the young man "has not discovered as yet an inclination to make sacrifices at the shrine of either Bacchus or Venus." But on the other, "his genius is not very bright." Still, he's a hard worker and determined to excel. (In this same letter, Crawford tells his friend of Eliza's marriage to Henry Anderson, who would abandon her less than two years later: he calls it a "union which has been highly to the satisfaction of every party, and promises much happyness.”)

Crawford keeps scrounging to send Thomas money for his education, but as the years go by danger signs begin to appear. In February 1802 Crawford writes to his friend that he hasn't heard from Thomas in quite a while. The young man has his good points, Crawford says, “but I fear he wants those which I am most desirous to recognise, industry, and a most zealous inclination to acquire information in the way I propose...” Maybe the problem was an excess of money at his disposal: “I now perceive the allowance he has had has been too much__ It has furnished him with the means of indulgence in a way I never contemplated, and he has sought for opportunities to pass the time agreeably, when I intended to provide alone for his ... application to the business in which he was engaged.” Apparently Thomas had by now discovered the allure of both Bacchus and Venus.

Ten months later Crawford still hasn't heard from Thomas, and he seems to despair of him. “I fear his sun is nearly set," he tells his friend, "but we must be resigned to the unsearchable ways of Heaven." And that's the last we hear of Thomas. As far as I can tell, neither Crawford nor Eliza every mentions him again.

In this same letter--of December 1802--Crawford says that Eliza "is doing very well. She is earnestly engaged in teaching the young idea how to shoot, and promises to excel in that line." "Teaching the young idea how to shoot" is apparently an allusion to some now-forgotten poem, but what it means is she's teaching school. Then, perhaps in a dig at the ne'er-do-well Thomas, Crawford exclaims, "How preferable is this to a life of unmeaning, rather let me say, of wicked idleness.”

This is a story that has no doubt been repeated throughout history: a son who has no particular interest in higher education has it forced on him, while a daughter who craves it is denied it. (Lest anyone think this kind of thing is a relic of the distant past, it happened in my own mother's family, just a generation ago.) But while Eliza--who appears to have had a mind like a sponge--was denied formal education, it's clear from her writing and correspondence that she learned plenty at home, presumably from her father.

What's odd is that Thomas apparently just disappears. "Wicked" and idle as he may have been, he was still a member of the family. Of course, Eliza and her father may well have sat by the fire many a night and lamented Thomas's absence; their thoughts just don't happen to have been recorded in any of the letters or other writings that have come down to us.

But there is one more letter in the series I've been quoting from--all of them written to a Hugh McCalmont, first in Demerara, then in London. This last letter is from 1805, and it was written just after Eliza had returned from her sojourn in London with Betsy Bonaparte. Apparently she'd seen McCalmont there, and he'd been kind to her. You'd think, if her brother were still in London--or anywhere in the British Isles--she would have seen him there, or tried to. But there's no mention of any such reunion, or attempt at one, in the 1805 letter to McCalmont. Apparently Thomas was now dead to the family--or perhaps, given the precariousness of life in the early 19th century, he was dead in a literal sense.

As we'll soon find out, this was only one of poor Dr. Crawford's many misfortunes.

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